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Let's *Not* Say Forever and Other Ways LGBTQ+ Folks Are Queering Their Wedding Vows 

Queer Michigan couples who went way beyond 'I do'

My perhaps ill-advised decision to permit connection with my extremely heterosexual and extremely traditional mom on social media has resulted in many fascinating discussions. What is a content warning? Why so much chat about Taylor Swift's necklace? Who's the man? 

Our embrace of the full spectrum of gender notwithstanding, she has seemed most confused by the photos of me, dressed in my best red flannel shirt and ostensibly matching tie, officiating the weddings of my friends.

I'm a queer ex-nun and comedian with an open heart and a willingness to do paperwork. I have a round face and a codependent streak the width of Lake Michigan and the depth of Lake Superior, which makes me a diligent try-hard with parents and a favorite of everyone's zany and slightly problematic Aunt Edna. My dubious wardrobe choices make me no one's enthusiastic first-choice celebrant. But my mom can understand why, in an emergency, I am sometimes asked to serve as defacto queer secular clergy. 

However, she remains puzzled about why I agree to officiate these weddings when, as she said in one early morning text, "you talk like you don't even believe in marriage."

It's true that I don't express enthusiasm for marriage as an institution with the same relentless and inscrutably optimistic zeal that plagues my mom, who had been married no less than seven times when this conversation occurred. Marriage, on a personal level, doesn't seem to be a good fit for me. Also, I lost two partners in a row to cancer, so I'm taking zero chances with any mentions — even implied — of this "until death do us part" business. It seems way too close to a dare. But I agree to officiate weddings because I'm continually amazed and inspired by the revolutionary creativity LGBTQ+ folks use to transform traditional institutions and components of weddings, including marriage vows, so that they serve our sometimes nontraditional lives and relationships. 

For example, we might use a typical vow but subvert it with our own meaning. My mom's subsequent text (she drank a lot of coffee that morning, apparently) said, "I know your gay friends are not vowing to obey anyone," and that's not entirely wrong. In my experience, indeed, many queer weddings don't include the promise to "obey." However, for some friends in the leather community, a marriage ceremony would be incomplete without the affirmation of the explicit and joyful agreement to do just that.

We don't merely rewrite the words of the vows — we sometimes reshape the symbolic actions accompanying them. For example, in many wedding ceremonies, each member of the couple processes into the service carrying their own candle. The couple then lights a single unity candle and extinguishes their own. When Holly Nanette Ferrise married her then-partner in Ypsilanti, they chose to have the individual candles continue to burn. Ferrise explained the decision: "Symbols mean a lot to me, and we wanted to highlight that coupledom doesn't erase individual selves."

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Instead of starting with a prefabricated wedding structure, whether informed by religion or a book checked out of the public library, LGBTQ+ folks often build their ceremonies from the ground up, leaving maximum room for creativity. Shanna Katz, a queer nonbinary polyamorous leather femme living in Ypsilanti, explains how they planned relationship celebration ceremonies with their partners: "I honestly don't think using traditional style vows ever occurred to us. Our relationships are not 'normative,' whatever that means, and so everything about our ceremonies and celebrations was customized to our love and connection, so it just made sense that our vows would be as well."

Starting from scratch often gives us maximum room to be our most authentic and to make promises with precise intentions. Bethany Joy Winn and her wife composed their own particular vows for their wedding ceremony. Now an ordained clergyperson in Grand Rapids, Winn explains, "I work with partners of many varieties to guide vows that reflect their honest commitments."

Chaya Milchtein, a queer automotive educator who lives in the Midwest, described how she and her wife composed their pledges: "Instead of feeling a lot of pressure to write something classically romantic, our vows reveal our belief that romance has to be found in the day to day, and whatever you have to promise to your partner will probably be very romantic to them, regardless of what society thinks."

For example, Milchtein vowed: "Part of growing with each other has meant learning to travel and explore, vacation and adventure. I promise you that I'll always make time to travel with you, planning adventures as often as we can afford them because life is short, and I want to see the world with you before we leave it. And I'll try to stay off my phone too."

Many LGBTQ+ ceremonies also include an acknowledgment of the challenges of long-term relationships. In one ceremony that I officiated, the couple asked members of their community to take their own vows to support the couple through those inevitable hard times. Although detailing potential struggle beyond a passing "in sickness and in health" might not be the stuff of which romantic comedies are made, Kate Walker, who identifies as both queer and polyamorous, explained that they believe including this conversation demonstrates a commitment to the reality of the process that makes relationships work.

Walker's wedding ceremony to one partner included the declaration, "I have already learned with you how embracing challenging moments with honesty, vulnerability and self-examination makes conflict not the opposite of intimacy, but part of it and our strong foundation." 

This same ceremony incorporated an acknowledgment that some romantic partnerships are not for a lifetime and promised a commitment to an evolving relationship: "If we ever arrive at the decision that being together is truly no longer right for us, I commit to going through that process with honesty, dignity, and respect and working hard to find a new way to remain each other's family." 

Domi Shoemaker, a kinky queer disabled polyamorous Portland, Oregon writer whose partner Kelly Jeske is originally from Michigan, celebrated their relationship with a ceremony that featured community contributions, including a ballet number, a piano piece and their partner's 96-year-old grandmother's virtual addition: playing the accordion from her Traverse City home. Shoemaker made the promise: "My beloved girl. Before our friends and family, I declare my love for you, my commitment to you, our family and our home for as long as we both consent."

I'm unlikely ever to get married, but I am thrilled to officiate ceremonies for many queer and trans people because of the beauty and creativity our community demonstrates when building our relationships and celebrating our love. Opponents of same-sex marriage for many years framed the rhetoric around a vague concern we would somehow undermine heterosexual marriage. The reality is quite the opposite: I see us instead making valuable contributions to the conversation about what all humans can and might promise each other in relationships. 

"Writing custom vows isn't even a thing just for queer and trans folks and those practicing non-monogamy and/or kink and leather," said Shanna Katz. "People are starting to recognize that we do not have to use what no longer serves us and, rather, create connective experiences that honor our realities."

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